The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

The Red Badge of Manliness

red badge of courage cover

Sometimes I read CliffNotes versions of old classics that I don’t particularly want to slog through, but am curious about. One of those is “The Red Badge of Courage”, written by Stephen Crane in 1895. It’s one of those classics you hear about, but no one you know has read. I left The Killer Angels unfinished so I knew I was going to have problems with this one.

But I didn’t know what kind of problems. I didn’t even like the summary. My biggest beef is the theme — glory and pride comes from war and battle. It sounds like toxic masculinity: violence is a means to an end, being injured is a good thing (that’s what the “red badge” is).

I feel like Hemingway wrote about courage and war better in “Soldier’s Home“. This book was praised for its realism, but I think it’s more realistic to war’s aftermath, trying to find peace with the PTSD. Cause you aren’t who you usually are in a war. And when you come back, you have to make restitution with the things you did.

red badge of courage cover

That’s not to say I don’t believe the contents AREN’T true. The reactions to war and battle seem plausible. The problem is that some of what the protagonist does is unforgivable, like leaving the tattered man to die just to avoid confronting his own cowardice. He spends most of his time feeling guilty. Particularly when he’s resentful of his commander or watching others fight with enthusiasm and thinking “why do they get to fight and not me”. Then he gets hypocritical thinking the men he saw running away were “wild” while himself running away was with dignity. And since no one saw him, he’s still “a man”. Sure, boy. Justify that to yourself however you want.

red badge of courage cover

There’s another element to this theme that a man who volunteers to risk death for a value is brave. Problem is, not all values are worth dying for. Plus, I always remember General Patton who said “The trick is not to die for your country. It’s to make the other bastard die for his.”

The theme would be better if it built on the secondary truism: that men in dangerous situations form close bonds and often act and think as one. That’s why they play so many team sports. My dad stayed friends with everyone he played football with in college. I’m friends with no one because I stopped playing team sports in elementary school. But there have been times when, because a group of us had to suffer together through something, I felt a stronger bond with them. One was the semester-long software engineering project in college. One time, early on, we just played online Yahoo Scrabble, working together, against someone who may have been a ten-year-old girl.

red badge of courage cover

This book is too antiquated to teach in school anymore. It’s got misaligned ideas of what’s bravery and what’s courage. It values the glory of war. And no women whatsoever. I hope this is getting phased out of the curriculum. Besides, we’ve got better media to showcase themes of courage under fire, like “Saving Private Ryan”, “Dunkirk”, and um… well, “Courage Under Fire”.

And IMHO, I’d rather they teach “The Long Walk” by Stephen King. It’s a better book about the will to live in the face of death that doesn’t have the “problems”.

Robots vs. Fairies

robots vs fairies close

So last month I read “Robots vs. Fairies”, a collection of short stories. I was a little disappointed because it wasn’t so much “versus” as “here’s robots and now here’s fairies” (except for one story at the end). But at the end of each story, the author declared whether they were “Team Robot” or “Team Fairy” and why. Even though the split is even, it felt like Team Fairy came out the winner. But I thought it’d be fun to declare my allegiance, even though I’m not part of the book. (They didn’t even *ask* me! *sniffle*)

Even though I probably read and produce more fantasy than science fiction, I play for Team Robot. This could be because of my unyielding loyalty to Johnny 5. It’s been demonstrated by my unyielding criticism of any other robot media because I know how computers work and how robots shouldn’t. I like computers, I like autonomous devices, I like the droids in Star Wars. I’m harsh because I care so much, like Anton Ego in Ratatouille.

anton ego robot

Stories with fairies are intrinsically lacking cohesion because it’s magic. Rules change from one book to the next. And sometimes they aren’t even consistent in their own universe. This is because fairies are tricksters and shapeshifters. The fey realm is unpredictable, emotional, and quick to react. In Magic: The Gathering, most of the fairy creatures are blue, the color of trickery and manipulation.

Of course, this is not a sufficient reason for taking one side over the other. I love fantasy and there are more stories with fairies that I like than ones that I don’t.

But here’s the thing. Stories about fairies and the fey realm are about how people in power treat us. It makes for good story fodder: a chosen hero, antagonist with impossible powers, mystery, vibrant settings. But stories about robots are about how we treat those under our power. (Ladies, this is why you always you should always go out with a guy who has a pet or grew up with pets. That way he knows how to care for something other than himself.)

Asimov’s “I, Robot” did it first and did it well, if you want an example. It kinda started the baseline theme for many robot stories, which is “where do you draw the line between tool and living being?” We’ve seen the results of slavery, we all know it’s terrible. But are you allowed to use slaves that aren’t human? That only differ in how they were created? How should we act towards those we hold absolute power over? The best novels provide questions, not answers.

Robots are basically slaves. It’s a paradigm you simply can’t avoid. And you shouldn’t avoid it. It’s something that needs to be reconciled. Think about the droids in Star Wars. They’re clearly intelligent, aware of their self as a separate entity from others, and respond to stimuli. Yet they are constructed, not born and grown over time. I think if we created autonomous intelligent robots, we’d treat them the way they do in Star Wars. Kinda like disposable pets. You can talk to them, but don’t get too sad if they explode, and you have no qualms using them as a meat/metal shield. Droids may be invaluable and expensive, but Luke’s not above using them as tools for getting into Jabba’s palace. C-3P0 and R2-D2 could have been easily destroyed without ever setting foot off the sand. And even Poe Dameron treats BB-8 like a puppy.

poe dameron bb-8 star wars

He even scratches his belly. Who does that with a robot? What does that accomplish. I think, even as much as I love robots, I can’t treat them different than a tamagotchi. Those stupid little eggs were meant to mimic a living creature — something that needs food, attention, and sleep. If not, it dies. But none of it’s anything more the programming. And the only way it can “die” is to be beyond repair. Does that do something to empathy? I’m not sure. I’m not even sure what the point of this post was. Anyway, here’s a robot and a kitten.

robot and kitten cat

My Kindertrauma: Wonderful Sausage from “More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”

How about a change of pace? Let’s hit the pause button on films and go for some literature.

Now, I’ve never found reading very scary. It lacks the visual punch and timing. The best you can get is a sense of dread. I know some people say that when your imagination takes over, things are scarier. But for me, I know I have nothing to fear from my imagination — it’s in my head, the monsters can’t affect me there. It’s only as scary as I can make it. Lovecraft can’t stop me from giving Cthulhu a flowery hat like Mrs. Nesbitt.

But sometimes at night, when the shadows are on the wall, and something pricks you just right… ideas can’t be controlled so easily. The right combination of gross-out, terror, and fear leads to nightmares. Case in point: “Wonderful Sausage” from More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.



This was another procurement from my mom’s college horror class. Why do I subject myself to these things? Was it a way to try and get closer to my mother? Was I just warped to begin with? Were sources of trauma becoming sources of arousal for me — the product of living a quiet, boring suburban life and this was my way to get safe thrills? I’ll never know.

Anyway “Wonderful Sausage” combines child abduction (which I touched on in Poltergeist III) and cannibalism. There’s also the horror of everyone enjoying it. I think something in my German roots was also attracted by the sausage. The fact that there’s little explanation behind the killer’s motivation makes it more intimidating. There’s no introspection, no thinking moments (as one expects from a campfire tale), it’s just a thing that happens — a guy snatches up men, women, children, puppies, kittens (not my cat!), kills them, and makes them food.

I remember one night laying in my bed, trying to sleep. Insomnia is a terrible thing, and I often had it. Usually a result of a fast and deep mind, made worse when toxic thoughts run around your head. And the shadows on your wall start to look like a butcher holding a limb over a sausage grinder. It was the same sort of thing that happened after Creepshow — my window looks like the Creeper is standing there, like a hallucination. Half-there, half-not.

Is Stephen King Getting Worse or Better?

stephen king

Stephen King’s going to go down in history as THE novelist of the late twentieth century. More than Dean Koontz or John Green or Danielle Steele. They even made a horror movie about him. I’m not talking about a documentary or his directorial debut (and finale) Maximum Overdrive or a thinly veiled pastiche like in “In the Mouth of Madness“. I mean he was the subject matter. He’s ceased to be a person, but a brand. That’s what I call being part of the public consciousness. Not even J.K. Rowling has that (yet).

But art changes over time. Simply because people change over time. Steven Spielberg doesn’t make the same kinds of movies he used to. Metallica’s first album Kill ‘Em All has a different style than Load, which has a different style from Death Magnetic. And don’t get me started about The Muppets.

It’s not all internal (meaning experience and skill). It’s mood, tone, technology, and situation. It’s the outside world and the inside world. It’s your mother dying or a civil war or a drug problem. Long story short, people change, so their art changes.

Stephen King’s been a non-stop train, publishing 1-2 books a year and countless short stories. But he’s not as “big” as he was in the eighties. Neither was he ever known for quality. He had a “People’s Choice” sentiment going on. Most of that is due to the nature of the genre (as in, if you write in a genre, critics ignore you). People still talk about It and Cujo and The Shining. Nobody talks about Joyland or Cell. Even Under the Dome  became a TV series, but you wouldn’t know it unless you were paying attention.

While thinking about “On Writing,” my foundation for “how to write”, his advice seems to contradict his actions. And not just in his old books, which might contain rookie mistakes. I’m talking about now. There are so many of the same tropes and cliches in every book you can make a drinking game out of them. Harold Bloom accused him of “dumbing down America” when King won the 2003 National Book Foundation award. He’s been accused of overwriting, inflating the word count to make his books into doorstops, and making the customer feel like he or she got more for their money. This article, taking a snippet of a 2014 book, does better justice to my thesis.

So here’s my question: Is Stephen King getting worse?

You would think that the more experience you have, the better at something you get. However, the bigger you get, the more “yes-men” around you. They think your shit doesn’t stink so they pass everything along because A) they know it’ll make a buck or B) if they say no, they’ll get fired. There’s fewer gatekeepers, fewer filters. If I was given the task of editing Stephen King, I would be very hesitant on suggesting any corrections. The man must know what he’s doing, he’s published so many books.

So let’s go to the data. Data never lies, right? I want to know if Stephen King’s trending up or down. Does he have a place in the world of stories today, or is it simply that we remember his name?

YEAR TITLE GENRE GOODREADS RATING GOODREADS REVIEWS LIBRARYTHING RATING LIBRARYTHING MEMBERS NOTES
1974 Carrie Horror 3.93 382000 3.72 9500
1975 ‘Salem’s Lot Horror 3.99 248000 3.94 10000
1977 The Shining Horror/Psychological Horror 4.18 836000 4.11 15000 King moves from ME to CO
1977 Rage* Psychological Thriller 3.8 23000 3.38 747 King moves back to ME
1978 The Stand Post Apocalyptic 4.34 474000 4.33 14000
1978 Night Shift+ SS 3.96 113000 3.8 6300
1979 The Long Walk* Psychological Horror 4.11 80000 3.84 3400
1979 The Dead Zone Supernatural Thriller 3.9 140000 3.77 7000
1980 Firestarter Science fiction 3.85 149000 3.64 6600
1981 Roadwork* Psychological Thriller 3.59 20000 3.84 1200
1981 Cujo Horror 3.65 168000 3.43 6700 King’s intervention
1982 The Running Man* Science fiction 3.81 68000 3.63 2400
1982 The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Fantasy/Western 3.98 374000 3.86 15000 Was originally written from 1977-1981
1982 Different Seasons+ SS 4.34 139000 3.98 6500
1983 Christine Horror 3.73 158000 3.53 6100
1983 Pet Sematary Horror 3.91 296000 3.72 9100
1983 Cycle of the Werewolf Horror 3.62 36000 3.39 2000
1984 The Talisman Fantasy 4.12 87000 4.04 7200
1984 Thinner* Horror 3.67 137000 3.41 5300 “Richard Bachman” is unveiled
1985 Skeleton Crew+ SS 3.93 88000 3.77 5900
1986 It Horror 4.19 492000 4.08 13000
1987 The Eyes of the Dragon Fantasy 3.92 82000 3.82 7500
1987 The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three Fantasy/Western 4.23 160000 4.1 11000
1987 Misery Psychological Horror 4.11 356000 3.94 9900
1987 The Tommyknockers Science fiction 3.48 96000 3.33 6500 First book written after sobriety?
1989 The Dark Half Psychological Horror 3.74 100000 3.56 6000
1990 Four Past Midnight+ SS 3.9 82000 3.71 5700
1991 The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands Fantasy/Western 4.24 137000 4.08 10000
1991 Needful Things Horror 3.87 162000 3.69 7500 First book written after sobriety?
1992 Gerald’s Game Suspense 3.47 106000 3.29 5700
1992 Dolores Claiborne Psychological Thriller 3.81 99000 3.64 5700
1993 Nightmares & Dreamscapes+ SS 3.9 59000 3.69 4300
1994 Insomnia Horror/fantasy 3.79 110000 3.67 7500
1995 Rose Madder Fantasy 3.66 76000 3.48 5400
1996 The Green Mile Fantasy 4.42 192000 4.23 8400
1996 Desperation Horror 3.8 100000 3.59 6800
1996 The Regulators* Science fiction/horror 3.64 54000 3.37 4600
1997 The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass Fantasy/Western 4.24 122000 4.07 9400
1998 Bag of Bones Gothic fiction 3.87 138000 3.71 7900
1999 The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon Horror 3.56 103000 3.44 6500 King’s car accident
1999 Hearts in Atlantis+ SS 3.8 71000 3.66 6000
2001 Dreamcatcher Science fiction 3.59 123000 3.32 6600
2001 Black House Horror 3.99 45000 3.78 5400
2002 From a Buick 8 Horror 3.42 50000 3.29 4800
2002 Everything’s Eventual+ SS 3.94 68000 3.75 6900
2003 The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla Fantasy/Western 4.17 110000 4.03 8300
2004 The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah Fantasy/Western 3.98 97000 3.87 7800
2004 The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower Fantasy/Western 4.27 105000 4.14 7800
2005 The Colorado Kid Crime fiction 3.28 22000 3.2 2400
2006 Cell Horror 3.64 154000 3.45 8600
2006 Lisey’s Story Horror 3.65 55000 3.6 5900
2007 Blaze* Crime fiction 3.66 30000 3.46 2800
2008 Duma Key Psychological Horror 3.93 80000 3.89 5800
2008 Just After Sunset+ SS 3.85 38000 3.71 3600
2009 Under the Dome Science fiction 3.89 203000 3.84 7800
2010 Full Dark, No Stars+ SS 4.03 70000 3.96 3400
2011 11/22/63 Science fiction/alternate history 4.29 306000 4.2 7400
2012 The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole Fantasy/Western 4.15 47000 4.07 2000
2013 Joyland Crime fiction/mystery 3.9 83000 3.9 2400
2013 Doctor Sleep Horror 4.1 117000 4.06 3300
2014 Mr. Mercedes Crime fiction 3.92 151000 3.85 2700
2014 Revival Crime fiction 3.75 69000 3.69 1700
2015 Finders Keepers Crime fiction 4.03 66000 3.97 1600
2015 The Bazaar of Bad Dreams+ SS 3.92 29000 3.91 1000
2016 End of Watch Crime fiction 4.09 47000 3.91 1000

* published under the pseudonym “Richard Bachman”
+ short story collection

Here’s our base data. Genres were taken from Wikipedia, which is authoritative as anything else with regard to categorization of art. Now let’s plot these data points.

Well, this certainly… doesn’t answer any questions. The GoodReads ratings trend slightly down but the LibraryThing ratings trend slightly up. And neither in any significant slope. I’m comfortable saying the quality of his work (as rated by the people) has remained consistent through his career.

Again, this is not scientific. Some of these people voted for Trump. And, from this view, the spikes vary wildly. Note that not one goes higher than 4.4 and not one goes lower than 3.2. But as a writer, that’s a comfortable wheelhouse to be in.

So we’ve determined no change in how his books are rated. Mr. Mercedes is about as good as Pet Sematary. But how about the number of people picking up his books?

Ah, we see some trends here. But the data skews downward for a reason. Forty years have passed since Carrie. That gives people more time for people to pick it up than Duma Key (2008). So the downward line doesn’t necessarily mean people are dropping King from their reading lists.

Or does it? When was the last time you heard someone talk about him? Not in the “fine legacy of a horror writer” sense, but “what have you done for me lately?”

Here’s a thing I want to point out. Somewhere between 1987 and 1991, King got sober. I’m not sure which was his first sober book (one source said The Tommyknockers, another said Needful Things) but note that point in time on the graph. No book except for The Dark Tower 7 (the final book in the series) and Under the Dome (which had a big marketing campaign behind it) reaches above 200,000 readers. So the quality didn’t change, but the number of people who cared did. Did his content change with his sobriety? Was the bloom off the rose? I feel like something happened, but I don’t know what.

Here’s another interesting thing to note — Stephen King’s not really writing horror anymore. In the last ten years only three books (that weren’ short story collections) were horror. More were categorized as crime fiction. Does that mean King’s sick of horror? Or he’s experimenting? I dunno. But I don’t think we’ll ever see another Misery or The Stand again.

Does King care? Probably not. I wouldn’t care. I would consider it a blessing. He’s made it. He still makes bestseller lists, for both old and new books (It is up there right now, thanks to the movie). And now he can write whatever he wants to. No deadlines, no pressure. Not even George R. R. Martin can say that.

Does any of this data-mining prove anything? I guess it proves that, contrary to what I said before, maybe a person’s art doesn’t change as much as we think.

The Books I Read: July – August 2017

bookshelf books

 

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I expected this to be like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. And I got what I wanted. It’s a tightly paced retelling of the old Norse creation myths. Problem is, there aren’t many of them. I suspect that’s more to do with lack of surviving source material, given what Neil Gaiman says in the foreword. Maybe a long time ago there were scrolls and scrolls of Loki and Thor stories. Now all we’ve got are comic books. And if you’re any fan of Marvel’s interpretations, this is required reading.

The nice thing is that the re-tellings are up to date. I expected something Shakespearean or textbook-dry, like Hamilton. But the narration feels like an old storyteller sitting down by the fire, telling yarns to the grandchildren. The details behind Ragnarok and Fenrir and Loki are fascinating. It’s funny and suspenseful and creative. There are one-liners and drama and character flaws & flawed actions. It’s flavorful.

If you haven’t picked up Neil Gaiman before, this might be a good one to try. The content doesn’t consist of his usual dreamlike, abstract faire (that I’m not too fond of either). And you can tell it’s material he’s passionate about.

Tough Sh*t: Life Advice From a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good by Kevin Smith

One night, before going out, Kevin Smith asks his wife “Can I stare at your asshole while I jack off?”

So depending on your reaction to that line, you can judge your potential interest in this tome.

Kevin Smith is, uh, an interesting fellow. Well, what I can I say? He was one of the voices of a generation. You look at the nineties and people think Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and Kevin Smith. The guy is, at heart, a storyteller. I could listen to him talk about Superman and the Giant Spider all day.

And that’s what this book is. You get to hear how he met his wife, the making/publication of Red State, the Southwest “too fat to fly” fiasco, the up and down relationship with The Weinstein Company. The nice thing about Smith is he’s able to admit his wrongs and justify his rights. He never assumes he’s the smartest guy in the room and always gets feedback on if he’s showing his own ass (because that’s easy to do when your content consists of stinkpalming stoners and Carlin-esque religion satire).

The book is equal combinations of crudeness and heart, black humor and childlike wonder. It’s a good book for insight on the Hollywood scene, especially for potential indie film-makers. And it gives more inspiration that “you can make it” than “this is how to make it” (which is really all luck more than anything).

The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War by Michael Sharra
(unfinished)

I might have finished if I hadn’t realized there were SparkNotes for it. Also a movie. Also, I didn’t care enough about the characters to know if they lived or died. And these are real characters that I know if they lived or died (spoiler: they all died… eventually).

I put it on my to-read list because I heard that this is the book that inspired Joss Whedon to make Firefly. Well, I couldn’t pass up that opportunity. But when I got to 40%, I realized I had gotten everything the book had to offer. The prose is dry and the characters read robotically. Maybe that’s to do with their military upbringing, but it’s hard to sympathize with the team that’s not fighting for the right side, even if they may or may not “believe” in that side’s cause (which is stupid, but I’m digressing).

If this was meant to teach me about war novels, I learned that they are boring. The plot is mechanical. Arguing about strategy–“take that hill.” We took that hill. Our guys got shot. We shot their guys. Argue, argue. Decide on more strategy. It’s how I imagine Warhammer novels are.

And then there’s the constant self-doubt of anyone in power. I imagine that’s true, but it gets annoying to constantly read about. The historical factor isn’t enough to pull me in either. Plus I know how it ends. So what did I come here for?

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

The city government grants a con artist a second lease on life if he can get the post office up and running. The mail system’s fallen into disrepair since the clacks (a telegraph/semaphore system) went up. But the evil business that owns them has been embezzling and employee safety has paid the price. So it’s David vs. Goliath as the thief has to figure out not only how to eschew his criminal background, but also how to deliver floors full of letters as he avoids the shadowy businessmen.

This is an adventure story. It’s not dissimilar to any other Pratchett – if you’ve read one of them, you’ve know what to expect. And this won’t convince you otherwise. I picked it up because it’s the highest rated/ranked Discworld novel in the series, and thought I should read this if not any others.

I consider Pratchett to the be the fantasy equivalent of Douglas Adams. That means events take a backseat to world-building and situation-explaining. Plot pacing is sacrificed for humor. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Written humor is hard because you lose all elements of timing. So if you can get a chuckle out of anyone, you’ve accomplished a great deal. And this got several chuckles from me.

The key negative is the unlikable characters. The con man doesn’t really want to be there. The government is forcing him in this job on threat of death. His chief ally at the post office is an old man who’d rather see tradition served than do any work. Plus a young man who might be autistic (he collects pins and goes into fits when routine is broken). No one is particularly charming, but Iron Man seems to get away with it. The other problem is too many subplots, due to the too many characters, which is par for the course in Discworld.

It’s a book of contradictions, but a solid four stars.

13 Treasures by Michelle Harrison
(unfinished)

It’s full of cliches. The story makes a promise in the first chapter that doesn’t get fulfilled or hinted at for the next four or five. Which means it’s a cheat.

This girl is apparently the one who can see fairies and thus under their constant threat (because she could reveal their existence). This means a bunch of hijinks that can’t be explained has already happened and the mother has no choice but to send her troubled child to live with her grandmother in the country. There’s a neighbor boy who’s kind of annoying, weird neighbors, parents who don’t understand, falling in love with a library, and a witch who gives her a trinket for no reason. Didn’t I see this already in Coraline?

There’s more narration than dialogue. No one has any personality. The character makes no connections or relationships in this new setting. Events happen without being rooted in some cause. The protagonist has no “save the cat” moment. She’s a whiny inactive protagonist. And lots of telling. There’s even a gypsy woman (and I thought that term was racist).

This is just some thirteen-year-old’s badly conceived fantasy.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

All the characters here are broken. And thus, interesting. But this is not a fantasy novel. This is a standard YA novel with real-life problems. Non-real elements are minor and don’t affect the plot.

Something’s going on in the background of said plot. Something “Harry Potter” or “Buffy” involving a Big Bad and Apocalypses. But that’s not what the story is about. This is about the extras that end up in the B-roll, when the cameras pan over the ambulances. Who are those people?

One is gay. One is going to a war-torn third world country after graduation. One is a recovering anorexic. And one (the main character) has a compulsion disorder. There is magic in the world, but no one is using it. No one wants to. They’ve seen what happens to the kids who do. They’re stressing about college, graduation, dating, whether he-likes-her-but-does-she-like-me. It’s nice to see a deconstruction of the hero’s journey, but hard to do well. This one does. The style reminds me of John Green writing a Harry Potter background character or A.S. King (“Please Ignore Vera Dietz”).

Just After Sunset by Stephen King
(unfinished)

I read the first six stories. Only one provoked any reaction from me, thus I put it down. They’re all typical Stephen King — overwritten and full of generic description. I think he’s said everything he’s needed to say, and now he’s repeating himself.

Plus the thing about short stories is that they never seem to matter to the world within. They’re never important or epic. There’s no point to invest in one because it’s gone as soon as you do. They’re just slices of life.

They’re also not scary. He’s gone from tangible horror to the existential slipstream hypnosis or something like that. There’s a Family Guy joke where King’s publisher is asking for his next idea. King looks around the office and grabs a lamp. “For my next book, um… this couple is… um… attacked by, um… a lamp monster! Oooh…” There is LITERALLY a story like that, but it’s a stationary bike. “Ooh, look at the scary stationary bike. Ooh, you don’t know where it’s taking you. Ooh, is it making you hallucinate or is it real?” Please.

I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie by Roger Ebert

I enjoyed “Your Movie Sucks”, and thought this one would be even better, because it might include more movies I’m familiar with. But that’s not the case. It cuts off in 1999 and includes a ton of stinkers that I don’t remember at all. (There’s even a review of a MST3K movie, I thought that was a neat anachronism.)

This one seems to lack the vitriol that the sequel had. Probably because Ebert hadn’t reached peak cynicism yet. I thought I’d enjoy hearing his witty evisceration of my nostalgic classics, but those were few and far between. It’s too bad you can’t buy just the reviews of the movies you want to read about.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

I cannot remember why I put this on my to-read list. It’s like a combo of John Scalzi and Leviathan Wakes. The characters are colorful, like a readable Firefly, but painted with a comic book brush. So they’re actually happy–not sullen or brooding or grimdark. That’s weird to me, but welcome. But after I finished, I was of two minds about it.

One one hand, it’s amateur hour. The entire middle could be removed without affecting the plot. Each chapter is episodic and self-contained. Some characters get a lot of screen time. Others you forget are there.

There’s an illusion of consequences to character actions… but nothing really happens. For example, the main character has a “the liar revealed” moment, and it affects nothing because everybody is so nice. No one dies. No one loses an hand or a mentor. Nothing changes anyone or anything. Nobody gets to say “Man, I regret doing that thing” or “I was wrong to do that”.

Finally, the “episodes” get transparently political. There is one that’s an immigration allegory. One that’s a LGBTQ rights allegory. One about religious freedom.

On the other hand, these are fun characters. They’re enjoyable to be around. They’re funny and smart, they don’t make stupid decisions. They’re practical and don’t fall into space opera tropes. It’s a little like Star Wars if it was created by the person who wrote My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. It’s not morose empire drama. But I don’t think I’ll read the second one.

The Books I Read: March – April 2017

bookshelf books

I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga
(unfinished)

I love Barry Lyga, but I had to stop after twenty-five percent. There was too much telling and not enough showing.

The story’s about a teenager who knows all the serial killer tricks because his father was one. So there’s analysis, backstory, and thinking, but not much action. Too much of the text is setup for the ongoing series, not the current story. I wanted to know what’s happening with the murder now, not ten years ago.

It would have been better if the text was presented in flashbacks so there was more immediacy, instead of recall. The narrator is just not interesting enough to allow him total control.

Afraid by Jack Kilborn

This is a real Suicide Squad — not some namby-pamby rogues gallery. A half-dozen sociopaths are given CIA mental conditioning and drug therapy. Then they crash land in sleepy-town, USA. Chaos ensues.

I’ve never read anything as fast-paced as this. Chapters are short, sentences are short, scenes are short. Although the characterization is light, the action is visceral enough and quick enough that you want to see more. You might think it’s a Stephen King-style thriller from the cover and blurb — slow burn, supernatural junk, psychic powers for no reason — but it’s a far cry.

It reminds me of a high-budget B-movie where they went heavy on script and light on special effects. The horror comes from how realistic (as in the killer is a criminal trained to be a soldier, not Pennywise the clown).

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

(unfinished)

I stopped when I reached two bothersome tropes in YA novels that I couldn’t overlook. One was the Wild Teen Party. The all-night rager-kegger thrown by the resident Daddy’s little princess where everyone’s drinking copiously and every room has the door shut. There’s mean girls, drinking games, and bros talking out loud about “getting ass” in front of the people they’re trying to get ass from. And of course, our heroine goes because her friends are there, but she’s too virginal to take part in the hedonistic orgy.

In movies it’s entertaining, but in a book, it’s the crutch of authors who need a place and time for characters to argue or see someone kiss someone else or some other plot point because, literally, everyone is there. It’s a setup to get someone sexually assaulted or overhear/see someone doing naughty which leads to “the liar revealed”, “the misunderstanding”, or “what did I do last night?”. Reality contradicts this to the point of ludicrousness — parties only have a few friends, finding alcohol/drugs is a scavenger hunt in its own right, and no one acts like a chauvinistic douche in front of anyone who could hear it. Yes, there are parties that turn up to eleven, but they’re the exception that proves the rule. The other nine times out of ten, you either play Halo all night or eat ice cream and talk.

Cliche #2 — our oh-so-precious heroes don’t read any conventional books. They read the classics like Bronte and Woolf. And constantly quote them to each other, like it’s a ping-pong challenge to prove which one is dumber (of course, neither loses, they know all the lines like Wuthering Heights was “Austin Powers”). No one reads Twilight or Harry Potter. No one reads anything written in the last century. That’s too mainstream. We’re all Hipster Ariels here.

That’s when I stopped reading. There are two main characters, one girl and one boy. They’re both suicidal. But one is more “eccentric” suicidal and the other is “dramatique”. The boy does it for the negative attention, but then criticizes the girl for doing the same thing. He’s like a manic pixie dream boy, like Johnny Rzeznik or the Phantom of the Opera. He’s special because he’s not one of the jocks who wants sex (see above re: “getting ass”). He’s a special snowflake who wants a meaningful relationship.

I read somewhere that “this is a book about depressed teens, not a book FOR depressed teens.” That makes death into a game. Like you’re watching these teens skirt around the edge of the suicide pool and the big question becomes “will she or won’t she?” Which is wrong. There is no glory in suicide. I’ve looked into that abyss, and I was able to turn away. There’s no romance. There’s no story. It doesn’t release you from your pain, it makes everyone around you feel worse.

At 33% I realized I didn’t give a shit about any of the characters. Books about coping with depressing situations? I’ll stick with “Eleanor and Park”, thanks. Coping with suicide? I’ll stick with “Looking for Alaska”, thanks.

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

At one third of the way through, there still weren’t any vampires. I’m not saying I need vampires at page one, but they should be part of the plot setup.

But still, this is one of the books that reminds you why people admire King (or did in the eighties). Despite the tedium of character after character after character, the prose still crackles with quaint expressions and sharp dialogue. Even though no one is working towards a goal, the characters are interesting and there are tons of them.Some of whom only get one scene or two and are then killed off. But the difference is, because they get a little screen time AND something you can stick to them (the bus driver who hates kids, the husband of the former beauty queen who catches her in an affair) their deaths have meaning (even if it’s only an ounce).

It’s the progenitor of many of the Stephen King cliches we take for granted today (setting in Maine, supernatural creatures without origin, one-dimensional bullies, useless police, crazy fundamentalists, rednecks, abusive jerkasses, alcoholics, letdown of an ending) and there’s pacing issues abound. Though they crackle, there are long stints of nothing happening, especially in the beginning. Although it gives the effect of making the town a character (so there is meaning when it becomes doomed), it makes me wonder which parts were written on a coke binge and which weren’t.

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

A little Dune, a little Game of Thrones, a little Leviathan Wakes, with the rest being pure Scalzi himself. It’s a great read, like his others. Not one you want to put down. Add to that the fact that’s it fun to be starting a new saga. And the best part is that Scalzi’s created one of his best characters to date in Kiva Lagos (mostly because she swears a lot). And that’s saying something because Scalzi is not known for character-driven plots.

Like the last two Old Man’s War books, this story takes place with a high scope. A forty-thousand foot view. This is not like Zoe’s Tale or The Ghost Brigades where you knew one character intimately. And like the last two Old Man’s War books, the story stays focused on politics and governmental milieu (although it’s not a political thriller).

One negative is that it seemed the good guys win their obstacles a little easy. Like someone grabs the gun from Chekhov’s mantle, but the security manager saw him bring in bullets, and they knew who was going to do it, so they replaced the gun with one of those bang flag things. Challenges were nipped in the bud right away so that the goal became how to make it so no one noticed they nipped the bud while finding out who grew the flower.

If you’re not familiar with Scalzi’s stuff, then this is a good jumping in point. It’s closest to Lock-In for style and The End of All Things for content.

My New Reading Policy

So after looking over my past logs for books (two years really), I realize there’s a reason my yearly rate is on the decline. And it’s not just because of new comics. It’s because I’m reading too many bad books. For 2016 my scoring average was 2.93. That means I read more books that I scored below average than above. This scoring should be at four. It’s not like I grade on a curve. There’s no reason I couldn’t have an entire year of five star books.

So to that end, I’m going to be a bit more picky about my selections. Too many times I’ve been fooled by classics that turn out to be antiquated and overwritten “post-modern literary” tripe. Most of the time I get my selections from my role models, whenever they happen to tweet about what they’re reading. People like John Green, Rainbow Rowell, Mike Krahulik. Sometimes I hear about an interesting concept, like a robot detective. Sometimes it’s a memoir from someone I like. Sometimes it’s a book I feel like I should have read. But now we’ve got some more rules before anything makes it on the “to-read” list.

Books will get minus points for being:

  • More than five years old, with each subsequent year increasing the minus on a graduated scale. Anything written earlier than 2010 gets scrutiny — I won’t know how to write for today if I’m reading for twenty years ago.
  • Too long. Hard to tell because page count doesn’t necessarily equal number of words. But my Kindle has a reading speed monitor and can tell me how long it’ll take to finish something.
  • Less than a 3.9 rating on GoodReads, correlated with a graduated scale of “number of reviews”. In other words, just because everyone else has read it doesn’t mean I should.

Also, I must read a sample of the book before committing. Too many times I forget I can just quit a book and fall to “time-sunk fallacy”. Maybe it’s because if I don’t finish it, I don’t feel right in writing a review for it and can’t add it to my tally. Or it’s “I’ve gotten this far, I may as well finish it at this point”. No! No! Stop that. Bad boy. Quit the bad books. Have a more discerning palate. If you want to stop in the middle of Wuthering Heights because it’s boring, then do it! I don’t care if people think less of me.

Maybe it’s because I never hear of authors telling the truth about books they read. They always gush or say “I ate up everything written by him/her”, like authors need to like everything. Like how actors never say so-and-so was hard to work with or whether the movie they’re in is any good or not.

This means there’ll be a new category in my “The Books I Read” feature — sampled. This is like “unfinished” but in this case, I read the sample and decided based on it whether or not to put it on the “to-reads”. I’ll explain my perceptions of the book, but I won’t be posting the review anywhere, since it’s not fair to judge a book based on a sample IMHO. *

Finally, going to try and avoid non-fiction. Not because non-fiction is tending towards badness, but because it’s not doing my fiction any favors when I’m reading exclusively on one subject. It’s hard to think of ideas for a fantasy-monster story while my mindset is in military women. Also, I’ve just read so much of it this past year I can take a break.

Now, given the criteria above, please understand: I’m not saying there’s anything WRONG with these kinds of books. This is for me and me only — your experiences no doubt vary. But I keep falling into these kinds of books and they’re starting to feel like “reading jails”. No matter how many pages you read you never feel closer to finishing, whether it’s because it’s long or hard to parse or full of fantastic language that slows down the plot. I need to have a higher standard for myself — or at least a fresh start — or I’m going to start hating reading.

*I have no idea how book reviewers do it. I read as fast as I can, but it takes me eight hours to finish a best-seller.

The Worst Books I Read in 2016

bad books running
beast within serena valentino
The Beast Within by Serena Valentino

(original review)

A sloppy, emotionless, and most of all, non-canon telling of the Beast’s life. I don’t know who looked at this and said “print it!” They don’t get key elements from the movie right, and all the new things, like the three witches, make no sense in the context of the original movie. Most harsh is that this will make you hate the beast more than sympathize with him. You don’t need this in your life.

friend diana henstell
Friend by Diana Henstell

(original review)

Yeesh. Eighties robots and school crushes and child geniuses and bringing the dead back to life. Sounds like a fascinating story or a Stephen King novel. But these are concepts in search of a plot… and characters… and setting… and a writer with the chops to bring them all together in a way that leaves you satisfied. Not one character in this book is likable. They’re all egocentric bastards. There’s so much time spent on whining and practically none on providing motivation or milieu to keep the story moving. Bah. I should have known better from viewing the 1980’s b-grade horror movie it was based on.

the third book of swords fred saberhagen

(original review)

Cream rises to the top, grounds settle on the bottom. There’s a reason these books fell into obscurity and this one’s the poster child. You can’t end a trilogy on something so convoluted and messy that brings up more questions than it answers. It’s a bad D&D campaign turned into an unreadable set of books. Learn from my mistakes and let the swords rest.

Now here’s a thing to keep in mind — I finished all these books. I don’t have any rule that says “unfinished books can’t appear on the list”. It’s just that these books were WORSE than ones I gave up on. I have no idea why I finished them. Maybe I was hopeful or had time-sunk fallacy or had nothing better to read. But I had way too many one stars and not enough five stars. Now granted, I am totally fine being critical. But if a book is one star, I probably shouldn’t have finished it in the first place. I’ve got to change my reading habits around if I’m ever going to enjoy reading again.

The Best Books I Read in 2016

heart book
lindsey stirling only pirate at the party
The Only Pirate at the Party by Lindsey Stirling & Brooke S. Passey

(original review)

It’s funny. It’s light-hearted. It’s not too long. It’s poignant. It’s like Felicia Day’s book. And it’s full of her voice both tragic and comic. Grim at times, cheery at most. This is not the Kim Kardashian, Tina Fey, or even the Mindy Kaling. This isn’t the girl who made it (not yet, at least). This is the girl still hacking at that creativity mountain with a pick-axe.

masters of doom david kushner
Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner

(original review)

A fascinating slice of nostalgia for anyone who played computer games during the rise of the FPS and years of shareware. Find out how it all happened, who the revolutionaries were, and what happened behind the scene to find the rise and fall of a watershed era.

rejected princesses
Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics by David Porath

(original review)

Christ, are they all non-fiction this year? Either that means I picked out some crap books or I’m starting to appreciate history. My original review gushed about it for more than four hundred words. I can’t think of what else needs to be said. If you want to read about heroes or women of diverse types, this is your go-to.

Quick Overview of My Reads for the Year

I hope whoever was in charge of 2016 got fired. For 2017, either you’ve got expectations set really low or are hoping high, thinking nothing can be as bad as that dumpster fire. But one always measures the future by calculating the past. And I calculate mine in books.
So remember last year when I resolved not to read so many bad books? Yeah, that didn’t so much happen. Even the book I’m reading now — “Geek Love” — it’s a good book, but it’s just so long. I’m skipping it to read comic books or play games, just because I’m bored of the world. The writing is fantastic, glorious, stupiferous. The story is full of interesting characters and events and plots and WTFs that I love. But it’s just so long.

Last year I read only 34 books. Now, it’s not like I stopped reading. But I did increase my comic book content this year. She-Hulk, Powers, Deadpool, and a bunch of the classics I missed out on. Still that’s no excuse for grinding on my whetstone.

My average rating for 2016 was 2.9. That means I rated more books under 3 stars than above. That means I probably read MORE bad books this year than good ones. I think it’s because, especially for classic books, I have too high of a threshold or tolerance or attention span. Must be tempered from all those Star Trek Pocket books I read as a teenager. I read a lot of long ones too: “A Discovery of Witches”, “Leviathan Wakes”, and “Wool”.

Most of the time it’s curiosity or obligation: “A View from the Cheap Seats” by Neil Gaiman because it’s Neil Gaiman, the second book in the “Peculiar Children” series because I read the first, “A Discovery of Witches” because my wife loves it, three of those Disney Gothic YA novels (“The Beast Within”, “Poor Unfortunate Soul”, “A Frozen Heart”), “The Book of Swords” trilogy because I had started them ten years ago but never finished. “Friend” because I thought robots and resurrected girl with super powers would be awesome. Le sigh. It was not to be.

So this means two things. I’ve got to lower my threshold for quitting books. I fell bad about it because I’m an author myself. But if I keep up at this rate, I’m going to start resenting the act of reading.

And I’ve got to up my average publication date. Too many old books that should stay lost to time. Yeah, they may be classics. But they don’t help me with my writing career. They don’t help me understand what’s being written in MY time. In MY realm of publication. What editors/agents today are looking for.